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On the Media’s Selective Belief That Words Can Pull Triggers



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I have been a longtime critic of the fatuous claim that those whom the nation’s madmen admire are somehow culpable for their actions. It was ridiculous when the Beatles were blamed for Charles Manson’s behavior; it was ridiculous when Sarah Palin was blamed for Jared Lee Loughner’s behavior; and it was ridiculous when the Southern Poverty Law Center was blamed for the shooting at the Family Research Council. It would be equally ridiculous to blame Piers Morgan or gun controllers or the left-leaning media or anyone else named in Christopher J. Dorner’s rambling manifesto for what he did in California. As I wrote last year in defense of the execrable SPLC, whose “hate map” was allegedly followed by Floyd Corkins, the FRC shooter:

The social compact does not allow room for violence against those with whom one disagrees, regardless of how worked up talk-radio hosts may get about a particular topic. In America, killers and would-be killers are responsible for their own actions, and they should be held accountable for them. After all, words don’t pull triggers: People do.

That notwithstanding, one can sympathize with the conservatives who jumped at the opportunity to exact revenge on the media, whose complicity in a series of previous rushes to blame “right wing” rhetoric for the actions of killers such as Timothy McVeigh and Jared Loughner — and tendency to presume without evidence that violence must be motivated by phantom “tea party” connections — has been nothing short of shameful. While deploring the tendency of revenge to legitimize the very position that is being criticized, sucking all parties into a useless battle of tu quoque, one can at least forgive the sentiment.

Putting this tendency to one side, there is one area in which vexed conservatives are absolutely correct. There is a whole world of difference between reporting the details of a killer’s manifesto, and accepting the killer’s conceits. To quote is no more to endorse than to reference is to imply cause. Usually, this distinction serves as the media’s justification for reporting the ramblings of criminals. But not today. In the combined 3,240 words of the lead stories from the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and the Associated Press, there is no mention whatsoever of the political contents of Dorner’s screed. Even the BBC ignores the inconvenient bits. They all mention the manifesto, of course — just not what’s in it, even in New York Times’ specific post about the document

There’s no mention of the extensive sections praising gun control, nor of the author’s appreciation for Piers Morgan, Dianne Feinstein, and President Obama. There’s nothing on his hatred for the NRA and Wayne LaPierre, whom Dorner calls a “a vile and inhumane piece of s***” whose defense of the right to bear arms justifies his “immediate and distant family” to “die horrific deaths in front of” him. There’s no reference to Dorner’s commendations of the “great work” of “Chris Matthews, Joe Scarborough, Pat Harvey, Brian Williams, Soledad Obrien, Wolf Blitzer, Meredith Viera, Tavis Smiley, and Anderson Cooper,” nor of his lionizing Ellen DeGeneres for her work in changing “the perception of your gay community.” Readers would not know that “Prop 8 supporters,” per Dorner, are “pieces of s***.” They’d have no idea that moderate Republicans are praised: George H. W. Bush, Jon Huntsman, Colin Powell are all singled out.

None of the people that Dorner mentions are guilty of anything whatsoever. But let me ask an earnest question: Had the killer instead praised Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, President George W. Bush, Wayne LaPierre, the NRA, and Proposition 8, and slammed the collection of journalists that he praised, perhaps singling out Piers Morgan for particular attention on the basis of his gun-control advocacy, what do you think the media’s reaction would have been? Ignore your first response and dig deep. What do you think the media’s reaction would have been?

I’m almost certain that it would have been ridiculous. I’m almost certain that there would have been discussions of the “far right,” of “talk radio,” and of the dangers inherent in “conservative media.” I’m almost certain that, as the New York Times reported after the Giffords shooting, “Democrats” would have “denounced the fierce partisan atmosphere.” I’m almost certain that the shootings would have been used to tie defenders of the Second Amendment to violence — however tendentiously. I’m almost certain that the manifesto would have been grafted onto everyone to the right of Arlen Specter and taken as a tacit list of their views. Neither that this would have been utterly ridiculous nor that it is a welcome change that nobody made such a poor argument this time around changes the fact that there is an obvious difference in the way in which political rhetoric and violence are treated when they originate on the Left. Who will deny it?

Were ignoring the motives of the insane, or respecting the privacy of individuals named, a general policy, then one could be more forgiving. But it is very obviously not. Much hay was made of those named in Anders Breivik’s shooting spree. Presidential speeches were made after the Giffords shooting, and Paul Krugman bluntly argued:

You know that Republicans will yell about the evils of partisanship whenever anyone tries to make a connection between the rhetoric of Beck, Limbaugh, etc. and the violence I fear we’re going to see in the months and years ahead. But violent acts are what happen when you create a climate of hate. And it’s long past time for the GOP’s leaders to take a stand against the hate-mongers.

Bill Clinton didn’t just blame Timothy McVeigh’s actions on Rush Limbaugh and others at the time, but came back 15 years later for a another shot at the apple, libeling the Tea Party in the process. In 2010, both Dana Milbank and the Daily Kos went so far as to write pieces about a shooting that never happened, blaming the attempt on Glenn Beck. Piers Morgan happily asked Gabby Giffords’s husband whether he had received an apology from Sarah Palin, and was astonished when the answer was “no.” Yet Morgan was quick yesterday to argue that Dorner’s actions had “nothing to do with politics and everything to do with deranged criminality.” Morgan is quite right. He is in no way entitled to moderate his views on the off-chance that some lunatic appropriates his anger, nor would those who suggest he does so enjoy any legitimacy. But it does leave one wondering why things are different in this case, and whether Piers Morgan’s name being cited somehow changes everything for him and for those who share his proclivities.



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